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'Second Place Is First Loser': All-Time Most Runner-Ups In Sports

Bill Speros for Bookies.com

Bill Speros  | 5 mins

'Second Place Is First Loser': All-Time Most Runner-Ups In Sports

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Phil Mickelson has finished second in the U.S. Open a record six times. How does that stack up against other top athletes and teams when it comes to falling short for a title?

Lefty begins his assault on the gallery and hospitality tents at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts on Thursday at 1:47 p.m. In addition to his ball off the tee, Mickelson is searching for his first U.S. Open win in 32 tries.

Mickelson has 45 PGA Tour wins, including six majors. But he has yet to win this one. He has golf odds of +20000 at major betting sites to win this week at The Country Club.

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Rory McIlory is the favorite at +1000 to win according to the latest U.S. Open odds, while the likes of Justin Thomas (+1100), Jon Rahm (+1200) and 2022 Masters winner Scottie Scheffler (+1400) are close behind on top betting apps.

Overall, Lefty has finished runner-up nine times in major tournaments. In addition to those six gut-wrenching 2nd-place losses ('13, ’09, ’06, ’04, ’02, 1999), he has finished second in the British Open twice (2016, ’11), PGA Championship twice (2014, ’11) and Masters once (2015). 

We examined the history of several major tournaments and major leagues across North America to see which teams and athletes join Lefty in being jilted most often at the championship altar. 

Most Runner-Up Finishes By League & Event

Making the finals or championship round in any sport is a significant accomplishment, as is finishing second in a major championship. As our list shows, many of the names and teams listed have won their share of trophies and titles. 

But the losses always seem to be the ones winners remember the most. 

'If You Ain't First, You're Last' 

Dale Earnhardt Sr. famously said "second place is the first loser." Reese Bobby of "Talladega Nights" fame raised the stakes by telling his young son, Ricky, that "if you ain't first, you're last." Reese later took it back

For those who come up short in a championship, it often feels that way. Here is a list of notable runner-ups listed by sport, with the most second-place or runner-up finishes in each event/championship. 

Sport Event Team Runner-Up Finishes
GolfU.S. OpenPhil Mickelson6
GolfPGA ChampionshipJack Nicklaus4
GolfBritish OpenJack Nicklaus7
GolfMastersBen Hogan4
GolfMastersJack Nicklaus4
GolfMastersTom Weiskopf4
BasketballNBA FinalsLA Lakers15
BasketballNCAA Championship (M)Duke6
BasketballNCAA Championship (M)Kansas6
BasketballNCAA Championship (M)Michigan6
BasketballNCAA Championship (W)Notre Dame5
HockeyStanley CupBoston Bruins14
BaseballWorld SeriesBKN/LA Dodgers14
FootballSuper BowlNE Patriots5
FootballSuper BowlDenver Broncos5
Tennis Wimbledon (M)Roger Federer4
Tennis Wimbledon (M)Boris Becker4
Tennis Wimbledon (M)Jimmy Connors4
Tennis Wimbledon (W)Chris Evert7
Auto Racing NASCARRichard Petty157

Nicklaus, Lakers, Petty Top Winners & Losers

Mickelson’s history in the U.S. Open is notable for some incredible moments, many of them terrible. His record of frustration and “What if?” is not the most futile when it comes to golf’s biggest stages. 

Jack Nicklaus has won 18 majors. But the Golden Bear finished second or tied for second 19 times combined in the U.S. Open, PGA Championship, British Open and Masters. 

Richard Petty won 200 NASCAR/Grand National Series starts in his 34-year racing career. The next closest driver is David Pearson with 105. The King amassed seven NASCAR Cup series crowns, and won the Daytona 500 seven times. 

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The Los Angeles Lakers have fallen short a record 15 times in the NBA Finals. Nine of those losses came at the hands of the Boston Celtics. But the Lakers are currently tied with Boston for the most NBA championship banners with 17. 

The Celtics trail the Golden State Warriors 3-2 in the 2022 NBA Finals. Game 6 is in Boston on Thursday night, just a few hours after Mickelson finishes his first round about six miles down the road.  

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About the Author

Bill Speros for Bookies.com
Bill Speros
Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist and editor whose career includes stops at USA Today Sports Network / Golfweek, Cox Media, ESPN, Orlando Sentinel and Denver Post.